Why the Judges Involved in the Russian Laundromat Return to Office

Why the Judges Involved in the Russian Laundromat Return to Office
30 October 2020 | 19:38

Five judges investigated in the “Laundromat” case have officially returned to the office. The members of the Superior Council of Magistracy accepted their requests for reinstatement in the positions they held until September 2016, with the payment of salaries for the period in which they had been suspended.

Thus, after a four-year break, the judge Serghei Lebediuc, who previously worked at the Military Court, Serghei Popovici, judge at the Comrat Court, Iurie Hârbu, magistrate at the Orhei Court, Serghei Gubenco, from the Comrat Court of Appeal and Garri Bivol, from the Chișinău Court, all investigated in the “Russian Laundromat” will put on the magistrate’s robe again.  At the Supreme Council of Magistrates’ meeting on October 27, 2020, all SCM members, except one, granted the judges’ requests for their reinstatement after an hour-long discussion.

In September this year, the Anti-Corruption Prosecutors ordered to remove from prosecution 13 former and current judges involved in the “Laundromat” case on charges of complicity in money laundering because the act did not correspond to the corpus delicti.

Similar arguments can be found in the other ordinances issued by different prosecutors, by which the judges were removed from criminal prosecution.

In one of these ordinances, the State Prosecutor Mirandolina Sușițcaia motivated her decision to remove Sergiu Lebediuc from criminal prosecution by the fact that the previous Court decision “became irrevocable by non-attack; accordingly, there is still no legal confirmation that the Court’s decision is contrary to the law.” Similar arguments can be found in other prosecutors’ ordinances, according to which the judges were removed from criminal prosecution.

The five judges are being tried in another criminal case, alongside the other former magistrates, who left the system. They are accused of knowingly pronouncing a decision contrary to the law in the same “Laundromat” case. It was opened in September 2016, and it has been pending in the Chișinău Court for more than three years, with no sentences issued. 

Despite being tried in a different case, all the five judges returned to the office unhindered.

In September 2016, the Prosecutor General requested the Superior Council of Magistracy to suspend the magistrates on charges of complicity in money laundering. A week later, the Prosecutor General repeatedly addressed the SCM the request to initiate criminal proceedings against the magistrates. In another case, it opened shortly after that, on the deliberate pronouncement of an unlawful decision. Afterward, the case was remitted to court. 

The Superior Council of Magistracy members were unable to suspend magistrates from office at the second request of the Prosecutor General since they had already been suspended based on the prosecutor’s first request. Thus, after the first case’s closure, there was no legal basis to remove the magistrates’ from office. Therefore, the SCM had got to reinstate them in their posts following the law.

The voting at the Superior Council of Magistracy: nine against one. “The decision is premature” vs. “This is a technical procedure.”

Carolina Ciugureanu-Mihăilă was the only one out of the ten members of the Superior Council of Magistracy who voted against accepting the five magistrates’ requests.

“Technically, the SCM was forced to accept these requests. The law has explicit provisions, not giving the SCM a margin of appreciation. Today’s solution raised many questions, including how to qualify the prosecutor’s actions and the SCM in September 2016? Were the actions legal or abusive? If there were any offensive actions, which is to be held responsible for these acts of abuse? Was the proverb presented by the Attorney General thorough or not? Does the Prosecutor General intend to inquire into the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office and, specifically, of Mr. Harunjen, the interim Prosecutor General, and the activities of the prosecutors who investigated the cases? If the Prosecutor’s Office’s Office in 2016 were perfectly legal, how can the September 2020 solution be explained? And last but not least, the question that is very unclear to me and that remains the most painful: who and when will compensate for the salary payments? Will it again fall as a burden on the taxpayers? General Prosecutor’s second request moreover, I want to mention that the five judges are still investigated in another criminal case, being tried for committing an offense under Article 307 of the Criminal Code.  In my opinion, the subject of reinstating the five judges is premature until we find answers to all these questions. I consider that the SCM was to postpone any decision, the SCM member specified.

On the other hand, Anatolie Galben, SCM member, rapporteur in the case of the request for reinstatement of the five judges, states that the institution’s solution is purely technical. 

He mentions that the Council “stated that they were suspended for the period of the first judgment on the case, under Article 243, complicity in money laundering. Subsequently, concerning these judges, an order was issued to remove them from criminal prosecution in the case based on which they were suspended. Article 20, paragraph 6 of the Law on the SCM, provides that, after the need for suspension disappears, the SCM issues a decision annulling the suspension from office. Respectively, based on the persons’ requests, and because the need disappeared, as they have been removed from criminal prosecution, the plenary, respecting the provisions of Article 20, annulled the suspension and reinstated them. This is a technical procedure. Once the decision stated that they were suspended until the necessity of the case expired, and they presented the ordinance by which they were removed from criminal prosecution, there could not be adopted another solution than that. It is a technical procedure and cannot be interpreted otherwise. No matter whether we like these people or not, as long as the law provides this way, we can’t put our ambitions above the legal provisions,” argues Anatolie Galben. 

Garri Bivol, the judge at Chisinau Court: “That’s the law, and that’s right.”

After the SCM decided, ZdG tried to find out from the five magistrates about the reasons for their return to the judiciary after a four-year suspension.

Garri Bivol answered,that’s the law, and that’s right.” At the same time, he hesitated to answer whether he thinks it is right to do justice and judge others while still being under accusation in another case pending.

Serghei Popovici refused to answer ZdG’s questions and advised us to talk to his lawyer, stating that he was too excited to formulate his idea. “Sorry, I’m calling my wife now so that she could congratulate me,” Popovici said. 

The other two judges, Serghei Gubenco and Sergiu Lebediuc, refused to talk to ZdG.

Lawyer: “The accusation was based on a shaky and groundless suspicion.”

Gheorghe Ulianovschi, Serghei Popovici’s lawyer, who represents the interests of some of the five magistrates, told ZdG that his clients want to return to the judiciary because “they were suspended and prosecuted for money laundering illegally.” Asked about the second case in which the judges are investigated and whether it seems right to him that those listed in a criminal case to do justice, the lawyer invoked his clients’ presumption of innocence.

They were suspended from office on the named case and are therefore innocent. And as regards Art.307 of the Criminal Code, the SCM considered that there was no need to suspend them in 2016. It was not decided thereat, and they did not find the suspension necessary as there were two separate cases. According to Article 21 of the Constitution and Article 8 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the person is considered innocent until proven guilty, in which case they are simply suspects. As confirmed by Article 243 of the Criminal Code, under which magistrates were accused but removed from prosecution, the suspicion they were charged is shaky and groundless. It will prove over Article 307. The same charge under Article 307 is unfounded and weaker than the one under Article 243,” argues the lawyer.

Ulianovschi avoided answering the question about the salary his clients will receive for the years they had been suspended. He said it is a matter that could cause a sensation, and he did not intend to “stun the people.” He firmly stated that the judges would get no more than it is provided by law.

As of today, they are considered reinstated, and according to the law, they are to be paid their salaries. Article 24 of the Law on the status of the judge indicates that when the judge’s suspension expires, he/she is reinstated and is paid all the rights he had until the suspension,” the lawyer specified. According to some calculations, each of the five magistrates suspended from office in 2016 would receive a salary of approximately 1 million lei. Besides, they can sue the state and claim compensation for non-pecuniary damage.

Four years since the magistrates were detained

On September 22 and 23, 2016, 16 former and current magistrates received arrest warrants for 30 days in the case of laundering approximately $20 billion. They were accused of issuing conclusions by which Russian money was laundered in Moldova. Initially, the case included 17 judges, two of whom died, and the third, Victor Orândaș, managed to leave Moldova.

The criminal case was opened two and a half years after the Supreme Court of Justice sent to the National Anticorruption Center, the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office, and the SCM an informative note on the involvement of several Moldovan magistrates in a dubious money laundering scheme, indicating the names of the magistrates and the cases in which they allegedly acted fraudulently. On September 20, 2016, when the case regarding the 17 magistrates was made public, only seven of them were still active in the judiciary.



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